SAG, ATA talk possible franchise agreement

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Top executives of SAG and the Association of Talent Agents held their first serious meeting Monday about a new franchise agreement, discussing not so much how to construct a pact but simply whether to bother trying.

Two previous such agreements governing commission structures and other issues were hammered out but never implemented. Negotiators' efforts in 2000 and '02 proved for naught after some in SAG cried foul over loosened financial-interest provisions and other proposals.

So 5 1/2 years after the last SAG-ATA agreement expired, ATA executive director Karen Stuart and the group's 100-plus agency members are seeking assurance that any new agreement can actually be implemented.

Stuart met at least twice with SAG national executive director Doug Allen, but sources said those discussions were largely get-acquainted sessions touching on the subject of a new franchise agreement only tangentially. Details weren't immediately available on the substance of Monday's meeting at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, but prospects for a new franchise agreement was chief among agenda items.

ATA president Sandy Bressler and the association's outside counsel, George Stohner of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, accompanied Stuart to the meeting. Allen brought SAG president Alan Rosenberg and national director of agency relations Zino Macaluso, among others.

"I can confirm that we were in an informal discussion with them today," SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said of the SAG-ATA session. She declined to elaborate.

Similarly, Stuart would only say the parties "had a productive first-step meeting, where we discussed issues of mutual concern."

Meanwhile, a letter that Stuart sent to Allen on April 20 recently circulated among ATA membership, and it depicts talks to date as anything but amiable.

Allen threatened to "unilaterally impose" a new franchise agreement without ATA input if a pact can't be quickly negotiated, Stuart said.

"These threats fly in the face of what has been a long-standing successful partnership between SAG and the ATA, and I cannot help but believe that they are motivated more by political aims than a good-faith effort to engage in a productive discussion," Stuart wrote. "If what you are advocating is enacted, it inevitably will lead to legal disputes that could cause irrevocable damage to what has been an overwhelmingly positive 70-year alliance between SAG and the ATA."

In recent months, SAG execs have made a series of roadshow presentations to members across the U.S., discussing how the guild might force the issue of a franchise agreement back into the spotlight. At a session held June 12 in Los Angeles, Allen told a packed house that the matter has represented one of his top priorities since assuming his post in January.

The last SAG-ATA franchise agreement expired in January 2002, and striking a new pact would restore a broad safety net for SAG members over commission structures, contract lengths and other issues. Currently, SAG members are protected only by any franchise agreements struck with individual agents or agencies and the sketchy constructs of state regulations.

The guild's most recent attempt at a new agreement was rejected in a 54%-46% vote in April 2002. Complaints then included that the proposed pact would have broadened agents' ability to charge commissions on actors' residual earnings and would have allowed agencies to take up to a 20% financial interest in production and distribution entities, twice what was allowed under the expired pact.

Yet from the time the last ATA pact was rejected, SAG officials have been painfully aware that they possess scant leverage with which to force the issue -- barring reinstatement of the guild's long-unenforced Rule 16(a).

A stipulation in the last franchise agreement and supported by SAG constitutional and bylaw precepts, the rule states that guild members can only be represented by SAG-franchised agents. Punishment for violating the rule, if enforced, would be dismissal from the guild.

Approval by SAG's national board likely would be necessary for any decision to reinstate enforcement of Rule 16(a) or to implement guild-crafted agency regs without ATA input. The board next meets July 28.
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